By Sol Noya
With most of the world going into lockdown, many students and young adults have been forced to move back in with their parents. For most of us, this can cause very mixed feelings–half the time, you’re thankful you’ve got your family being there for you again, and the other half is itching for your independence. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s short story ‘The Cough’ manages to capture both feelings perfectly.
The story’s narrator, who has moved back home with her siblings and her parents, has made a ‘grave error’–coughing at the dinner table while on lockdown in front of her family, who are on edge as her brother is in quarantine. She is immediately put in quarantine in her room, where she reflects on living with her siblings again and on her family’s, particularly her mother’s, reaction to the crisis. The plot is simple: rather than attempting to cram a whole storyline about a still-developing situation into the story, Braithwaite focuses on developing the story’s characters and what they feel, and it pays off.
The other aspect of the story that I found relatable was the depiction of the narrator’s feelings about the lockdown. There’s the helplessness and fear, both for herself and her family. She contemplates, ‘how do you fight something, you couldn’t readily identify?’ These feelings of uncertainty and worry are paralleled by those you feel upon leaving the house, both for yourself and your family. And there’s the bewilderment at the world that we’ve all gotten used to changing so much, so quickly. It really does feel ‘like the whole world has stopped turning’ when, until cities started enforcing quarantine, the world seemed on track to keep moving at an ever-faster pace.
In comparatively few words, Braithwaite encapsulates two very relatable situations, and this drew me in. The first is the experience of living with a big family, who Braithwaite hints is non-white. The family relationships reminded me of both my nuclear and my extended Latin-American family. There are the siblings who use up all the internet and barge into your room to deliver messages and orders from your parents with a don’t-shoot-the-messenger attitude that anyone with brothers and sisters can instantly recognise; the family members on the WhatsApp group sending the latest viral, though questionable, message about developments regarding the epidemic; the slightly germophobic mum who is teased but loved by the rest of the family. Braithwaite portrays this family ensemble with humour, but without cruelty, as exemplified by the narrator remarking that her sister’s delivery of her mum’s home remedies for coronavirus must be a plot ‘to kill [her] and take over [her] room’ (another argument that anyone with siblings can recall).
However, in all the feelings of anxiety and tension that come from the uncertainty depicted in the story, the narrator’s voice is lightened by humour, and her mother’s high-hopes for her own home remedies. Although the narrator is exasperated with her family at times, the notes of sarcasm, ‘I can only imagine what [her parents] have in store for me now’, and scepticism at all the messages going round ‘lo and behold, [the next cure found] is an old home remedy’, show how we are all trying to get through this. The cure is a strong sense of humour, and hope that the next news will be good.
‘The Cough’ is available online here.
Image: Matt Briney via Unsplash